Dalai Lama has an ally: Mongolia Revival: All but banned in its own country, the Tibetan Buddhism of the exiled Dalai Lama is having a revival in Mongolia. And China is upset.

Sun Journal

July 24, 1996|By Ian Johnson | Ian Johnson,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

KARAKORUM, Mongolia -- On a summer day, the silence at the Erdene Zuu Monastery can be unnerving. Inside the main hall, a dozen lonely monks are singing the tantric chants of Tibetan Buddhism; the grounds have the wasted and beaten look of chronic neglect.

Yet here and throughout Mongolia, the beginnings of a great religious revival are slowly becoming apparent, one with profound implications for neighboring China and its troubled province, Tibet.

Mongolia is more than another former Communist state recapturing its traditions. It is a linchpin of the Tibetan religious world, a country with such strong cultural ties to Tibet that it took the bold step earlier this century of recognizing Tibet's independence from China.

Now, with Tibet back firmly under China's control and its god-king, the Dalai Lama, in exile in India, Tibetan Buddhism's tenuous rebirth in Mongolia gives the Dalai Lama a new ally. Where the Dalai Lama previously had no country in the world in which Tibetan Buddhism was the main religion, one is now reappearing.

"Perhaps one of the most important developments for Tibet in recent years is that Mongolia is an independent country again," says Robbie Barnett of the London-based Tibet Information Network. "There's a huge potential strength for the Dalai Lama in creating links with Mongolia."

Tibetan Buddhism -- which embraces the Russian territories of Buryatia and Tuva -- forms an arc that almost encircles China's western regions, adding powerfully to the Dalai Lama's stature at a time when China is trying to crush his influence in Tibet.

But as seen by the inactivity at Erdene Zuu, Tibetan Buddhism still has a long way to go before it regains the dominant position it had before 1937. Then, Mongolia's brutal dictator Choibalsan had 17,000 of the country's 110,000 monks executed, with all but a handful of its 746 monasteries burned to the ground.

Gombochir, an 85-year-old monk who, like most Mongolians, uses one name, sits in a room near the main prayer hall and relates a typical story.

As a young monk of 26, Gombochir was spared the firing squad that awaited senior monks. He was sent to work in a factory and eventually married.

In 1990, when Mongolia's Communists fired their hard-line leadership and proclaimed a democracy, he hardly dared return to the monastery. Only after being assured on several occasions that all would be well did he dare help carry out the first ceremony, a simple chant at dawn to start the day.

By then, however, Erdene Zuu was hardly recognizable as one of the great centers of Tibetan Buddhist learning. Once housing 60 temples and thousands of monks, Erdene Zuu had three temples that housed a "museum of religion" and a few old monks like himself.

Since then, nearly 200 young monks have joined, but most of the senior monks who knew something of religious life have since become too ill to participate in services. Without dormitories, the monks still do not live a monastic life. Prayers that can only be passed on orally from monk to monk have been lost.

"It has actually a very tenuous existence in Mongolia," says Sue Byrne, an Englishwoman who runs a London-based charity, Buddhism in Mongolia, that promotes Tibetan Buddhism's revival. "There are really just a handful of young monks in the country trained fully in Buddhism."

A chief supporter of Tibetan Buddhism's revival here has been Kushok Bakula, India's 79-year-old ambassador to Mongolia. Bakula, who is considered a reincarnated Buddhist saint, spends a day a week receiving pilgrims and dispensing spiritual advice. Dressed in red and saffron robes, Bakula says Mongolians remained Buddhist in their hearts, even when it was forbidden.

"If you are not Buddhist, then what are you? You lose your identity," Bakula says. "What difference are you then from Chinese or Russians?"

In Tibet and Mongolia, Buddhism gained adherents by integrating its teachings with local folk gods and shamanistic practices, such as exorcism, chanting with masks and ritual healings.

Sometimes called Lama Buddhism because the religion is guided by lamas, or senior monks, the religion developed into a ** theocracy backed by huge, wealthy monasteries. Before the Communist revolution of 1921, Mongolia was led by a god-king, much as Tibet was run by the Dalai Lama before China invaded in 1950.

Whether Mongolians ever return to this medieval life is doubtful, but they seem enthusiastic about their rediscovered roots. It is impossible to travel this sparsely populated land of 2.3 million nomadic herders without coming across a ruined temple that is being rebuilt.

Erdene Khambyn monastery, for example, was destroyed in 1937 but a small chapel has been rebuilt thanks to one of the monks' granddaughters, Dawa.

Now 63, Dawa has assembled $20,000 in contributions from local herders, the Indian ambassador and worshipers. The temple's prize possession is a small statue of the Maitreya Buddha supposedly handmade by Mongolia's first theocratic ruler 300 years ago.

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